AFRICAN CUP OF NATIONS

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Draws have Nigeria under pressure

Nigeria
Nigeria is under pressure after consecutive draws in the African Cup of Nations.
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Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson is the editor of the football quarterly The Blizzard and writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Cricinfo. He is the author of six books on football, including Inverting the Pyramid, which was named Football Book of the Year in both the UK and Italy. His latest book is The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper.

   
 

NELSPRUIT, SOUTH AFRICA

There is, perhaps, only one job in football less secure than that of being Chelsea’s manager. That is to be the manager for Nigeria.

Nigerian managers are appointed, and then they are sacked, sometimes because of results – for there is no public nor media so demanding as the Nigerian public and media – and sometimes for obscure political reasons.

Stephen Keshi has molded a gifted young side that is still developing. Nigeria didn’t lose a single game in 2012, yet now successive 1-1 draws in the Cup of Nations have placed him under intense scrutiny.

In the first, against Burkina Faso, Nigeria seemed comfortable in a 1-0 lead, then had Efe Ambrose sent off for a soft second booking and conceded an equalizer in the final minute of injury-time. On Friday, the Super Eagles were again undone by a late equalizer, this time an 85th-minute penalty converted by the Zambia goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene after Eddy Onazi had been harshly penalized for a push on Emmanuel Mayuka.

Nigeria had been the better side until then and missed a first-half penalty of its own, John Obi Mikel scuffing against the post – the fourth successive game in Cup of Nations finals  in which Zambia’s opponent has missed from the spot.

Keshi had every reason to be frustrated – his goalkeeper and captain Victor Enyeama called the penalty decision “bizarre… one of the worst decisions in the history of football” – and yet he was phlegmatic afterwards. “I’m not sure of it was a penalty,” he said. “But we have to press ahead.”

It was a characteristic response from Keshi. He is tough and single-minded, seemingly unflappable. He was an uncompromising central defender and captain when Nigeria last won the Cup of Nations, in 1994, and he is a tough and uncompromising manager, as Obafemi Martins, Peter Odemwingie and Shola Ameobi have found out. He is a large man who seems larger, authority radiating from him. His standard mode is gently mocking humor.

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Keshi also has no illusions as to the expectations heaped upon his squad. “Nigeria has a standard in African and world football and Nigerians want to go back to these glorious times,” he said. Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa. It has produced as many top-class players as anywhere else on the continent, and yet it has won only two Cups of Nations. It won Olympic gold in 1996 but has stuttered since, failing even to qualify for last year’s Cup of Nations.

Keshi is preaching patience. “If we want to go back we need to develop,” he said. “I’ve never seen a house built in a day. In our case we want to start today and win tomorrow.” He is also demanding absolute commitment – a supposed lack of which cost Odemwingie his place in the squad. John Obi Mikel, even, found himself briefly omitted from the squad because his focus on the national team seemed less than absolute.

Given the potential distractions and the hysteria that always surrounds the Nigeria squad, it’s pretty much the only policy with a chance of success. Countless Nigeria teams have been derailed by internal squabbles. “Everybody wants to tell you who to play, how to play,” Keshi said. “If you have 10 Nigerians, you’ll have 10 line-ups. You have to close your eyes and your ears and do what you think.”

Even with his attempts to impose discipline, there was discord after Nigeria’s draw against Burkina Faso. “After the match they shouted, they quarreled, they told themselves the truth,” Keshi said. “But by the time we got to the hotel, they were friends again, playing tennis, table soccer and teasing each other. So that let me know that they are up for it.”

Some tension, of course, can be creative, and the spirit within the Nigeria camp seems strong. On Thursday, the Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, spoke to the team for half an hour and then sang a birthday song for Keshi, who turned 51 on Wednesday. The message is one of collective responsibility and it seems to be working. At past tournaments, the slightest hint of underperformance has led to panic and emergency meetings with the federation (NFF) and the sports ministry. Keshi did talk with NFF officials earlier in the week, but he insisted it was a routine meeting.

Zambia’s coach, Herve Renard, meanwhile, remains as suave and charismatic as ever. He sounds like Arsene Wenger but in his pristine “lucky” white shirt, the top couple of buttons always undone, he resembles a great romantic adventurer. His shirt, which had to be partially covered by a neat back jacket as Nigeria was wearing white (Keshi had to cover his regulation green T-shirt with a brown bib as Zambia was wearing green; Renard doesn’t do bibs), continues to work its magic. He has worn white in 12 of the 13 games he’s coached at the Cup of Nations; the only one he’s lost was the other one (3-2 against Cameroon in 2010, when he wore blue).

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Last year’s triumph makes him untouchable – “it is better to win something and run behind it all your life than never to win,” he said – but the flaws in this Zambia side, for all its spirit, are becoming increasingly obvious. The defensive organization is not quite there, while Christopher Katongo, who operates just behind the front man, is yet to rediscover the form of last year.

Nigeria is overdue success; Zambia is still riding the wave of last year’s unexpected triumph. Nigeria labors under the pressure of expectation; Zambia’s positive outlook seems to bring it luck. Nigeria has been the better side in both games so far and yet has won neither; Zambia has been severely tested in both and yet has lost neither.

Nigeria must beat Ethiopia in its final game to secure qualification for the quarter-final; Zambia must beat Burkina Faso. Nigeria has played better in the tournament so far, but as it continues to battle its neuroses, Zambia is probably the more optimistic.

Jonathan Wilson is editor of the football quarterly The Blizzard and a columnist for World Soccer. He is the author of five books, including a history of tactics, Inverting the Pyramid, and a biography of Brian Clough, Nobody Ever Says Thank You.

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